“Which language shall I learn this year?” On language struggles of mobile early-career academics

I never studied French at school. Some years later, in 2015, I came to regret this decision when I suddenly got a chance to move to France. The original stay was supposed to be 15 months. And then two years. Today, I find myself having lived on French soil for over seven years, barely being able to discuss anything in French beyond basic small talk and getting some official business done.

As a linguist, I’m ashamed of the current state of my French. However, when you’re an early-career researcher and married to another early-career researcher, finding a job in the same country as your partner is not that simple. Maybe that’s not even the intention. This two-body problem, however, means that someone, or both, need(s) to be moving around the world. If that means a country where English is not the local language, how much time and money are academics expected to invest in language learning? What if we’re staying there only for a while and then move to a new country, again having no idea how long the stay will be this time?

“English is enough in academia” – but is it really?

For my PhD, I generated data at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, which is located on the border or France and Switzerland. For a year and a half, I did ethnography on a group of doctoral researchers who were doing their doctoral work in the CERN facilities. Their approach to French was quite pragmatic: they would learn the basics to live in the area but not much beyond that, as they would most likely leave after completing their PhD. Only some of them had studied French at school, and for most of them it was a “necessity”, rather than a “passion”, or a desire to understand the French speakers or the culture.

In a way, “why bother?”, as learning the basics would usually be enough. CERN is an international, bilingual research institute where English is used alongside French. You speak English with colleagues and perhaps order your lunch in French, if you know how to. You’d only encounter problems when having to deal with the French authorities, such as when you’ve filed your taxes completely wrong and have to go to the local tax office, hoping they’ll understand your miming-filled Franglais.

In some rare cases, however, you end up staying longer than you originally planned, only to realise that you should have learned the language when you first arrived. And the fact that you should at least try to do so is something I’ve always been quite adamant about: learning the local language is the key to the culture, as well as people’s hearts—language(s) is/are a major part of our identity, after all. So, learning the local language(s) will show the people around you that you’re interested in their culture and their ways of thinking.

I’ve seen the opposite attitude backfire many times. While in many cases the excuses have been the same as mine with French (“I didn’t have the time”, “I thought I wouldn’t stay that long”), in some cases they’ve also been driven by misguided assumptions: that language use would be some kind of an “either/or” trade-off where one comes with the price of the other, instead of “both/and” situation, where both/all languages can be used flexibly side by side, even though everyone wouldn’t understand everything at all times.

The skill to learn languages quickly – a part of every mobile academic’s toolkit

Learning languages is difficult, frustrating, and slow. Progress is hard to witness, as it is so gradual. Most of us also don’t feel comfortable not being able to express ourselves like we can in our first language. Learning languages can also be expensive if you don’t have institutional support to attend a language course.

Despite these inconveniences, we can’t continue thinking that “English is enough” in academia, especially if we have plans to leave the comfort zone of our home country and go and work elsewhere. In many cases, yes, English is the language that most academics can speak, at least a little bit, but it does not have to be the only shared language. We can have multilingual spaces in our work communities as well as in our classrooms.

How many languages should academics be expected to learn and speak, then? Sadly, it is difficult to predict which languages you’ll be needing before you actually need them. I never planned to move to France, until I did. I never planned to work in Russia or Sweden, until I did. There have already been several occasions where I’ve had to find quick ways to get some kind of a hold of a language, so that I wouldn’t be completely lost. For me, not knowing how to communicate with the locals is worse than putting in the time and effort in learning to do so.

That is why, instead of stating a specific number of how many languages you should speak, it’d be important for every academic to “learn how to learn languages”: to know how to get a hold of the basics of a language quickly when there’s not much time to do so. Moreover, it’d be important to learn how to navigate in an environment where at the beginning you understand next to nothing of what is being written or said around you. Developing these skills might take time, just like learning languages themselves, but they will be valuable in the long run.

In a few months, I’ll move to the Netherlands. A month ago, I spoke zero Dutch. Today, I speak some Dutch because I decided not to repeat my French mistakes. I’ve spent the minimum of 30 minutes on Duolingo every day, as well as attended an online Dutch beginnerscursus. By August, I hope to have reached a level where I can have basic conversations in Dutch. If I am to have a life in the Netherlands, no matter if it’s for five years or forever, I need to speak the local language, even if the Dutch are well-known for their excellent English. However, I want to speak Dutch with the Dutch. Because, to me, a language is a window to its speakers’ minds. And I want to see what is happening in the minds of the Dutch, academics or not.

Do you need to get a hold of a new language? Here are some online language learning websites and resources:

Photo by Nathaniel Shuman on Unsplash

Melina Aarnikoivu is a postdoctoral researcher at the Finnish Institute for Educational Research and a Project Leader at the University of Borås, Sweden. She speaks fluent Finnish and English, mediocre Swedish and German, small talk level French, and very-very basic Slovak, Russian, and Dutch.

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